Gay Amsterdam: A dream with canals and cruising

Amsterdam is something of a gay cliché. Few cities have enjoyed a combined reputation for gay tolerance, openness and sexual possibility as long as the Dutch capital has, and yet few gay getaways are as taken for granted. Like some of its across-the-border European neighbours, Amsterdam has gone a bit quiet on the gaydar since the turn of the century. Among continental cities, Berlin has overtaken it (and pretty much everywhere else) as the hot spot of gay buzz, innovation and abandon, though Amsterdam remains a very doable destination, and one that appears to be once again on the up.

Historically the city has its roots in a 12th-century fishing village, then peaking as a world leader in the 17th century (its Golden Age), with its port, trade and science among its most critical assets, not to mention Rembrandt and his contemporaries. The notion of tolerance that defines its reputation today stems in great part from a successful rebellion against Spanish religious oppression in the 16th century. The Dutch have also endured serious challenges from the French, the English and, during the Second World War, the Germans. But the current climate is all-embracing, with at least 45% of the city's 800,000-plus inhabitants born to non-Dutch parents. The melting pot includes, among many others, immigrants from the Dutch Antilles, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, Italy, Spain and, since the 1970s, Surinam, with dividends for the cosmopolitan-minded and food-adventurous traveller.

Getting back to the gay thing, the Netherlands has been in the vanguard at several key points in modern history. Amsterdam was the first city to establish a gay memorial. Unveiled in 1987, the granite-made Homomonument (with its pink triangle motif) acknowledges past suffering and persecution while celebrating gains and casting a wary eye on the future. In 1998 the country legalised registered partnerships and three years later became the first nation to sanction same-sex marriage. And 2013's International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia was attended by Queen Máxima, wife of King Willem-Alexander, less than a month after assuming her upgraded royal position.

In short, the climate here is quintessentially gay-friendly, with only the odd nasty blip. And as with the world's other liberated cities, the scene has shifted and evolved, though the rainbow flag remains a prominent fixture across the capital. Darkrooms dominated the top bars in the 1980s, but by the 2010s have fallen in number from about 30 to ten, and mixed non-cruisy drinking spaces are now a given in certain quarters, especially among youth more prone to shopping for sex online than in bars. Leather and rubber continue to have their place, but fetish pursuits are not what they once were in this former leather mecca. The scene is now splintered, more democratic and seemingly a touch less vital.

The city offers not one or two but five distinct geographical clusters of gayness, all within the tulip-shaped central area. Among the oldest is the AMSTEL, named after the river that informs so much of this city's culture and which runs across the street from several of this area's gay bars, most of which veer toward the traditional. A few boot steps from the railway terminal Amsterdam Centraal and rubbing up against the near-iconic red light district, two distinctly different but compatible streets of gay pleasure-seeking intersect. The ZEEDIJK ('sea dike') includes several welcoming and relaxed drinking holes for the non-novice, including Cafe 't Mandje, possibly the world's first gay bar. Its more cruisy neighbour the WARMOESSTRAAT defined gay Amsterdam during its late-20th-century Golden Age of Leather with bars such as the Argos and the Eagle, with only the latter still going following the sad demise in January 2015 of the previously internationally famous Argos. Now tastefully paved over and hetero-buzzy to rather circus effect when darkness falls, the Warmoesstraat is holding its own among (increasingly casual) fetish-friendly gay men, while newer generations appear to be taking their libidos and thirsts elsewhere. Such as the REGULIERSDWARSSTRAAT. Tricky to get one's tongue round it (the name, that is), this gay-dense street, located immediately west of the Rembrandtplein and just a crawl away from the Amstel's gay haunts, has a lively but slightly institutional feel. The good news is that since 2013 or so it's been on the up, healing its wounds and reinventing itself after a downside period marked by bankruptcy and other downer issues. Finally there's the ever quaint and pretty KERKSTRAAT, with its genre-defying cross-section of gay retail, drinking, dancing and cruising.

Visitors are struck by a kind of anachronistic hippy feel owing to the city's heavy presence of bookshops, record stores, bicycles (statistically outnumbering people), government-sanctioned 'coffeeshops' (for legal highs) and, in particular, 'bruin cafés' (brown cafés) — traditional, darkened and often candlelit spaces marked by nicotine-stained surfaces, decorative clutter and an atmosphere the Dutch call 'gezellig' (cosy). Cafe 't Mandje is one of the few gay spaces with a bruin feel. And for the record, the word 'café' translates as 'bar', as opposed to places in which to have coffee, of which there are also many (also gezellig). Shopping is a serious distraction here too. Strolling and consuming go hand in hand, augmented by the dreamy network of canals and endless-seeming olde-worlde-ness, making for an effortlessly pleasant extended weekend, which one could perhaps combine with a trip to Rotterdam or Antwerp.

Overall the Amsterdam package still qualifies as a gay haven, in its own category and holding its own.

Next Big Things: Leather Pride 'Get Ruff!' weekend in late October and New Year's Eve.

For more information about gay Amsterdam, visit the dedicated LGBT section of the city tourism bureau site at www.iamsterdam.com/en-GB/experience/for-you/gayamsterdam

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